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Leadership and Authenticity
For years now I have heard others speak of "authentic leadership." Initially, I was perplexed by this strange coupling of words. After all, leadership was about flawless execution, the possession of a full portfolio of competencies, and setting strategic vision. Authenticity had little to do with these three characteristics of leadership. Furthermore, I could not determine which word qualified the other. Were people saying that they desired a form of leadership, that was pure and unadulterated, namely authentic? Or was the message that people wanted leaders who displayed a high degree of authenticity as one of many qualities in their exercise of leadership? It became apparent to me that the latter best conveyed the meaning of this emerging phrase. Genuineness - real authenticity - needed to become a key measure of effective leadership.
As far as I can determine, the genesis of this expression began in the late 1990s. Organizations became weary (understatement here) of impersonal and detached leaders who oversaw and managed operations by means of executive fiat and memos that descended from on high. Middle-management minions put these dictums into practice, eventually working their way up and into positions of authority that replicated the autocratic, distancing style of their mentors. These were leaders who rarely showed up on the shop floor and walked among the front-line staff. They were unknown, aloof and regarded with great suspicion despite their competencies.
By the end of the 21st century a shift began to occur within organizational cultures. People desired and even demanded that their leaders coexist among them - that they prove themselves to be comfortable and real (meaning human and transparent) among the hoi polloi (Greek for "the common people"). Gone were the days when employees were satisfied with "the great and powerful Oz!" Organizations were tired and altogether unimpressed by pillars of fire, loud intimidating voices and scowling stares that communicated not a little condescension. It was time to pull the curtain back. To our surprise, (borrowing the metaphor from the movie classic), we found that the Wizard of Oz was not the tyrant he projected to others but a NORMAL human being who, though knowing which levers to pull and push, was no different than anyone else. In fact, did not Dorothy and her fellow sojourners come to realize that the Wizard of Oz was at his best when he actually came out from behind the curtain? Indeed! Lives were healed when this Wizard drew near and showed empathy and understanding. His leadership credentials were never compromised because he actually cared; rather they were enhanced and expanded. The Land of Oz was liberated only when "the Great and Powerful Oz" gained the freedom to display his humanness, compassion and true understanding of the human dilemma.
Organizations want their leaders to show themselves, to get out from behind the executive suits, to descend from on high and grab a sandwich, care, listen and, most importantly, show themselves to be human after all. Of course, we know organizational leaders are human, but we want to see them being human and real in our midst. And herein lies the problem: authenticity is intimidating, risky, and exceedingly revealing for leaders accustomed to maintaining "professional" distance and brandishing their superior curriculum vitas as validation of their position and power. Moving toward authenticity is difficult precisely because it requires significant internal work. Leaders must deal with, confront and embrace their own reality - who they are and what they possess that connects them to the human community. T.S. Elliot rightly observed that, "Humankind cannot bear very much reality." Paradoxically, it is only as leaders embrace the reality of who they are as human beings that the foundations for authenticity are laid. There is no other way.
It is my position, one that I explore here, that organizations which encourage or tolerate a culture of leadership-by-distance or leadership-through-maintaining-power-and-privilege actually become a breeding ground for inauthentic leadership and discontent. Typically these are organizations that, though they may deliver strong services or products, nonetheless suffer from chronic low morale, low retention rates (especially of the more gifted and passionate staffers) and passive-aggressive behavior and attitudes toward upper management. It is intolerable and inexcusable that executive-level management would view this arrangement as acceptable. Furthermore, it is tragic for executive- and mid-level management to perpetuate inauthentic leadership because it encourages a denial of and disregard for our humanness. To show our humanness means that we willingly display the full range of emotions, strengths, weaknesses, foibles and flaws that result from being a member of the human race. Authenticity is about how a leader shows up and what a leader allows others to see. Authenticity is about genuineness, believability and approachability. It is about being seen and experienced as human while one goes about the business of organizational leadership. However, as leaders who have wrestled with the challenge of authenticity know, it is not a decision that should be made lightly or without great thought and reflection.
Why Leaders Seek Authenticity
When leaders seek to become authentic in their leadership, I doubt that most truly understand the arduousness of the journey and the personal cost involved. What most probably do believe is that gaining authenticity is like acquiring a new professional or technical competency: read a few books, attend the workshop, gain mastery of the subject matter, practice and implement the guidelines and, in a few weeks, you will find that you are leading with authenticity. Colleagues, direct reports and peers across the industry will be amazed at the incredible transformation. Many leaders seek authenticity for the wrong reasons, primarily in hopes of receiving accolades. It is often a means to another end (personal advancement, empowerment of self and/or gaining popularity) rather than an end in itself (creating congruence in oneself and the empowerment of others). As I write, "authenticity" seems to be the current organizational buzz word pouring from the mouths of leaders, consultants and personal coaches. Books, articles and symposiums on authenticity abound. There is currently no shortage of opportunities to embed authenticity in your leadership DNA, but misunderstanding of the process involved or its purpose abound.
Unfortunately, leaders at every level are often left with the impression that authenticity is a tool one implements in order to make something happen. While it is true that authenticity creates synergy around you - it affects your environment and the quality of your relationships and thus your leadership - it is not true that authenticity is a mere behavioral tool a leader implements to accomplish organizational goals. Rather, authenticity must first be personally experienced before it radiates from the inside out. It is an impossibility and contradiction to "acquire" authenticity for only utilitarian purposes. Yet, we all know of leaders who treat authenticity in this manner; they wield it like a tool to gain advantage and position, while remaining fundamentally unchanged, unmoved, unknown, distant, untrustworthy, inhospitable, unkind, aggressive and highly selfish.
Legitimate authenticity or authenticity that is transformational for the leader and subsequently (always subsequently) for those within the organization, is a costly, time-consuming process. There is no short-cut. As leaders discover this truth, their initial enthusiasm often wanes, and they abandon the "tool" for another that is more easily acquired.
Why So Few Leaders Experience Authenticity
One thing that is ostensibly clear to me is that organizational and leadership consultants tend to over-simplify the complex and over-complicate the straightforward. Thus an aspiring leader may mistakenly conclude that becoming a leader who demonstrates authenticity is a simple and uncomplicated matter. Few resources that speak of the need for authenticity seldom, if ever, describe the journey toward authenticity that must precede any actual demonstration of authenticity. It is this fact that explains why so few leaders fully assimilate authenticity; they not only have a flawed understanding of what it means to be authentic, they are also unwilling, when they discover the internal work that is required, to commit to becoming authentic.
Grammatically speaking, "authenticity" is a noun meaning "the quality or state of being authentic." A leader who wishes to demonstrate authenticity must first commit to undertake the journey that leads to authenticity. Webster's defines "authentic" as conforming to an original so as to reproduce essential features, made or done the same way as an original, and not false or imitation. The word authentic can be traced back to the early Greek Antiquities. The Greek "authentikos" means "original." The Ethics Center for Engineering and Science, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) defines authentic as an absence of hypocrisy or self-deception. To be authentic, based on the preceding definitions, is to live as closely as possible to one's core character, your "originalness" or your true center. It is to be comfortable or at home "in your own skin" (as opposed to skin that is not your own or, worse yet, someone else's skin that you believe is more attractive, competent and successful).
There are two challenges to authenticity. The first is the process of becoming an authentic human being, for to lead with authenticity requires that one experience that which makes one authentic. Because it requires such focus and difficult personal work, this first task often becomes the official deal breaker; leaders give up and ultimately abandon the process altogether. These are the leaders who resort only to "working hard" to display the outward expressions or displays of authenticity while they remain essentially unchanged inwardly. These pseudo attempts at authenticity are short-lived and easily seen through by others. Such leaders never confront the second challenge, which is to actually lead with authenticity from the inside out. These are the leaders who aspire to lead with authenticity and who are not intimidated by the challenges of reconnecting with their deepest sense of self, the seedbed of authenticity. These leaders will find incredible freedom, joy and effectiveness in ways they have never before experienced because they have been willing to invest the energy and time to do the internal work that must necessarily precede the external experience of authenticity.
A variety of reasons can set the stage for a leader's desire to embark upon the path toward authenticity. Several I have identified are:
Why Few Leaders Can Sustain Authenticity
I view authenticity as a decision to appropriately and thoughtfully display thinking or behavior that reveals my humanness. This is a daily, as well as a situational, decision. Displaying authenticity requires vigilance of self, external environments and a clear understanding of the people with whom I am in organizational community. Maintaining this constancy of consciousness about authenticity, as well as the importance of exercising the wisdom required to make helpful decisions about appropriate levels of authenticity on a daily basis, is not easy. This is one of the reasons, I believe, why leaders cannot sustain authenticity; they fail to develop the habits that lead to consistent, natural and context-appropriate expressions of authenticity.
However, it is the second reason that represents the most daunting challenge to expressing authenticity. Authenticity is fed by the deeper well of awareness of self. Awareness of self comes from a growing and always-emerging understanding of our purpose, our self-worth and self-acceptance and our personal sense of mission. Authenticity is fundamentally the result of being clear on who we are, where we're going and, most important, how we can contribute toward the growth and well-being of others. Authentic leaders are familiar with their core identity or, as philosophers and theologians would say, the "ground of their own being." These are the leaders who have spent time dispelling illusions of self and instead invest in discovering who they are, why they are here and the unique sense of call that has informed their vocational decisions and shaped their human community. They are engaged in an ongoing process of coming to terms with their aspirations, strengths and contributions, as well as their brokenness, fragility, fears and faults. Leaders who demonstrate authenticity share from both areas. Furthermore, they understand how to appropriately integrate authenticity within organizational and relational contexts.
To sustain this level of authenticity requires consistent interior work (staying connected with who one is and who one is becoming), coupled with a willingness to be known in one's humanness within the organizational community. Leaders tend to abandon the necessary work involved in maintaining authenticity because it is simply too demanding interiorly and exteriorly. The work to stay connected to one's humanity is a never-ending journey that continually demands the courage to know one's true self as opposed to constructing an illusory self. It requires discipline to stay on the journey, especially when confronting the more unseemly and indecorous dimensions of oneself. It requires wisdom to know how to propitiously translate these insights in a way that benefits others and the larger organization. We all have known leaders, managers and co-workers who have inspired us to grow wiser, be more lion-hearted and embrace our failures (as opposed to being paralyzed by them) simply because they gave us a window into their own authentic experiences. Because of that transparency, we have drawn great energy and inspiration to take the next step in our own professional evolution and personal growth. Conversely, we have also known leaders, managers and colleagues who were powerful demotivators and destabailizers because they were unwilling to reveal any insight or understanding of their own humanness. It is a truism that, when we are confronted with our own limitations, fears and foibles as humans, we benefit most from experiencing a shared sense of our imperfect humanity with others. When we struggle as people, deep down we want to know we are not alone. Bless those leaders who understand this fact!
Why Organizations Suffer From Lack of Authenticity
Peter Koestenbaum in his book, The Philosophic Consultant: Revolutionizing Organizations with Ideas, makes the observation that, "To destroy the dignity of the human being is evil. To be indifferent to the feelings of others is evil. Not to support peoples' sense of self-respect is evil. Not to challenge people in becoming authentic is also evil (p. 111). Inauthentic leaders are like a toxin to others and the culture in which they function. Their behavior is, in fact, evil because it destroys the dignity of others, breeds indifference, which leads to the denigration of self-respect, and models a larger organizational acceptance and tolerance of a leadership or management style that is uncaring and uninterested, a de facto denial and rejection of our strongest bond - our real flesh-and-blood humanity. This leadership keeps people locked-down and locked-in. It creates organizational cultures that are unsafe and dangerous because they leave little room for any display or acknowledgement of our humanity.
If authenticity is appealing to you as a leader or influencer of others, I would encourage you to look before you leap. Authenticity, the kind that legitimately gives life to others, is not easily achieved. You must first decide to begin the journey inward that will bring a greater understanding of your own humanity. In so doing you will begin to understand what it means to live-out your humanity authentically in community. It is also important to note that leading with authenticity is not the result of finally arriving at "the place of inner truth." Rather living with authenticity can begin with the commencement of the decision to begin the journey inward. Remember the kind of leaders that invited you to be your best from the place of your humanity. Chances are, they did so because they placed themselves not above you or ahead of you but right beside you.
Koestenbaum, P. (2003). The Philosophic Consultant: Revolutionizing Organizations with Ideas. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass
Many more articles in Authenticity in The CEO Refresher Archives